Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New
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Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New

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The keynote address for the Spring 2012 Midwest Archives Conference meeting. This talk continues and expands on my working definition of "participatory archives," providing examples and talking about ...

The keynote address for the Spring 2012 Midwest Archives Conference meeting. This talk continues and expands on my working definition of "participatory archives," providing examples and talking about the relationship between participation and engagement. (This PDF contains both the slides and explanatory text.)

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Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New Document Transcript

  • [Note: I am belatedly writing up my notes on this presentation, which I gave about a year ago now. I willdo my best to remember what I said at the time, but I can’t promise I will be able to represent it withcomplete accuracy. There is one section that I actually did have written out formally, so it’s not as looseas the other sections. I usually don’t write out my talks. I just use the slides as prompts, so that formalsection is a bit out of character for me. And you will also note that there’s an evolution in my thinking inthe course of this talk and it ends up with some tweaking of my definition of participatory archives, soyou need to actually get to the end to learn about that. But, on to the re-creation, and let this be alesson to you (and to me): write up your presentations as you go!]This talk was given at the Midwest Archives Conference spring meeting in 2012 in Grand Rapids,Michigan. I was honored to be asked to serve as the meeting’s keynote speaker.I’m sure I started out by thanking the meeting’s program committee for inviting me to speak, and sayingsome complimentary things about MAC. I probably also thanked MAC for giving me an excuse to domore thinking about the topic that had been on my mind since the previous summer when I talkedabout it at the SAA Annual Meeting: how should we think about “participatory archives” and why doesthat matter? So the title of the talk refers both to participatory archives themselves and also to myremarks—people who heard me speak in Chicago were hearing something old and something new inGrand Rapids.
  • 2K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.As the cartoon says (sort of), I am what I am. I don’t consider myself a scholar and I’m certainly not anacademic. I’m a synthesizer and a populizer. I observe what is happening in the world of archives, and tothe best of my ability in the broader field of cultural heritage, and then I try to distill it and identifyqualities or themes that I think are particularly interesting or relevant for the archival profession as awhole. And I try to do so in ways that are understandable and useful for working archivists andpractitioners. And my thinking is always evolving. What I say in this presentation is different from what Isaid last summer, and will be different from what I say in talks in the future. So, with that disclaimer outof the way … let’s start by first talking about “participatory culture” in general and then we’ll move on tosee how that applies to archives.
  • 3K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.As you might imagine, there are a lot of formal definitions of “participatory culture,” but basically whatthey boil down to is that people are not just passive consumers, but active creators.
  • 4K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.In Chapter 1 of his book Remix, Lawrence Lessig recalled the concerns John Philip Sousa voiced in 1906about the effect of recorded music on amateur music culture. The culture Sousa wanted to protect wasone in which ordinary people owned and played musical instruments, children took music lessons, andpeople gathered and performed music spontaneously as part of their daily lives. What Sousa feared,according to Lessig, was ‘that people would be less connected to, and hence practiced in, creating this[musical] culture.’1The musical culture evoked by Sousa can also be used as an example of participatoryculture. In a 2009 report Henry Jenkins defined participatory culture as:a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong supportfor creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experiencedparticipants pass along knowledge to novices. In a participatory culture, members also believetheir contributions matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at theleast, members care about others’ opinions of what they have created).2In Chapter 4 of the popular book Moneyball, Michael Lewis describes the origins and development of aparticipatory culture centered on baseball statistics. Lewis’s story starts with the self-published analysisof Bill James, who became the leader of this statistics-based movement. Lewis writes, “James’ literarypowers combined with his willingness to answer his mail to create a movement. Research scientists atbig companies, university professors of physics and economics and life sciences, professionalstatisticians, Wall Street analysts, bored lawyers, math wizards unable to hold down regular jobs—all1Lessig, p. 27.2Henry Jenkins (P.I) with Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton, and Alice J. Robison. ‘Confronting theChallenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21stCentury.’ Cambridge, Mass. : The MIT Press, 2009.Available at http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/full_pdfs/confronting_the_challenges.pdf.
  • 5K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.these people were soon mailing James their ideas, criticisms, models, and questions.”3Lewis continuesto describe several key aspects of the movement that the amateur statistician Bill James’ work inspired,aspects you will also recognize as basic elements of a participatory culture:The swelling crowd of disciples and correspondents made James’s movement more potent in acouple of ways. One was that it now had a form of peer review: by the early 1980’s all thestatistical work was being vetted by people, unlike James, who had deep interest in, andunderstanding of, statistical theory. Baseball studies, previously an eccentric hobby, becameformalized along the lines of an academic discipline. In one way it was an even more effectiveinstrument of progress: all these exquisitely trained, brilliantly successful scientists andmathematicians were working for love, not money. . . . The other advantage was that thegrowing army of baseball analysts was willing and able to generate new baseball data.4Technology played a part in helping these people communicate, but it was their passion for baseball andstatistics, as well as having a nexus in Bill James for communicating, that let them evolve from passiveobservers of baseball into a community creating new knowledge about the sport. Communities of“passionate amateurs” have always existed, and I believe that when thinking about participatory cultureon the web it’s important to remember that the factors that motivate people to participate have alwaysexisted. The web and emerging technologies just give us new ways to carry out that motivation.In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky noted “The atomization of social life in the twentieth centuryleft us so far removed from participatory culture that when it came back, we needed the phrase‘participatory culture’ to describe it. Before the twentieth century, we didn’t really have a phrase for3Michael Lewis, Moneyball, p. 80.4Lewis, 82.
  • 6K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.participatory culture; in fact, it would have been something of a tautology. A significant chunk of culturewas participatory—local gatherings, events, and performances—because where else could culture comefrom? ”5I think similar observations could be made about the rise of so-called “DIY culture” and “makerculture”—clearly such terms weren’t needed in the past. In the past people did or made thingsthemselves because they had no choice. Now people choose to do so for the sheer fulfilment of doingand making.I thought this introduction was important because many people equate participatory culture with use ofsocial media. Social media and other forms of web technology provide a megaphone for participatoryculture, but it is the participation aspect that I think archivists need to pay attention to, as well as howtechnology can be used to facilitate it. Increasingly people use technology to interact with culturalcontent outside official forums. They create their own networks and virtual (or tangible) collections ofhistorical materials. The challenge for archivists is how to benefit from this trend, and work with relatedstakeholder groups and individual enthusiasts to promote the value of archival collections.So, with that context, what do we mean when we talk about “participatory archives?”5Clary Shirky. Cognitive Surplus. New York: The Penguin Press, 2010, p. 19.
  • 7K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.Here are two excellent definitions, written by two noted scholars. I respect their visions of participatoryarchives, but for me their definitions are too narrow, or at a minimum too formal and academic todescribe the kinds of environments that are springing up around us and which I think of as participatoryarchives.
  • 8K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.So this is the definition I came up with and presented last summer at the SAA meeting in Chicago (in thesame session in which Elizabeth Yakel presented her definition cited in the last slide). My definition iskind of long, I know, so let’s walk through it.First, “an organization, site or collection”: that’s deliberately broad. I didn’t want to impose a narrowdefinition of “archives” in this case. What’s critical here is that archival materials are the focus of theactivities, not the kind of organization or structure that’s hosting or sponsoring the work.Next, “people other than archives professionals”: that seems pretty clear. To be participatory you haveto have people participating, and that means people other than professionals or staff.
  • 9K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.So, what are these people contributing? Knowledge and resources. Knowledge seems clear, butresources can include actually contributing original materials or copies of materials, as well ascontributing their own time or perhaps even money. But what’s left out here are contributions such asopinions, feelings or artistic creations. So in other words, by this definition someone who views a photoposted by an archives on Flickr and who leaves a comment saying “that woman is ugly!” or “this remindsme of my grandmother’s house” or who uses that image in a music video is NOT making contributionsthat would qualify as participating in a participatory archives.Similarly, those contributions of knowledge and resources in the definition achieve certain goals. Theyresult “in increased understanding about archival materials.” In other words, the result is thatknowledge about the materials is increased. Again, the kinds of interactions those users had with theFlickr image allowed them to have fun and derive personal satisfaction, but they didn’t lead to any newinformation about the image. Nor, if the archives posted the image on Flickr and no one commentedwould it have been “participatory” according to this definition. Just as a general blog post about thework of the archives would not. Both lead to an increase in general awareness of archives, but neitherleads to “increased understanding” about the specific archival materials.In other words, engagement is different from participation.
  • 10K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.Engagement is great. No one loves engagement more than I do. By saying it’s different fromparticipation I don’t mean to denigrate it. It’s just different. These sites are excellent examples offostering engagement. The National Archives’ caption contest on the Prologue blog (example:http://blogs.archives.gov/prologue/?p=5061) and the Mustaches of the Nineteenth Century blog fromthe University of Kentucky Archives (http://mustachesofthenineteenthcentury.blogspot.com/) are botha lot of fun and people love them. A Facebook page, like this one for the Maryland Historical Society,allows people to learn about upcoming events and read posts about a repository’s collections.
  • 11K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.There are lots of ways to create engagement with users, and I’ve showed examples of most of these:telling a story (blogs or Twitter accounts that allow people to follow along by reading diary entries ofletters are great examples of this), giving people the chance to win something (again, contests like funnycaption contests are great for this), conversation (such engaging in actual discussions on a Facebookpage blog or Twitter account), allowing people to share or rate objects or collections (the Coca-Colaarchives had a site in which they had users rate their favorite Coke memorabilia), humor is one we’re allfamiliar with (again, Mustaches of the Nineteenth Century does this well), and of course inspiringwonder and creativity, which I think we all see daily in our face to face interactions with researchers,and which extends into the virtual realm as well.
  • 12K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.But again, my contention is that while engagement is great, it’s not on the same level as participation.The key factor is the type of contribution that’s made and the result it generates—increasedunderstanding about archival materials.But what about that last part of the definition?
  • 13K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.Why “usually in an online environment”? Because if you take that part out and look at the definition, itdescribes the situation that many (if not most) archives have always had. People other than archivesprofessionals—that is volunteers, researchers and interns—contributing knowledge and resources(especially time) resulting in increased understanding of archival materials. That’s a pretty normalsituation for many small and medium sized archives. Again, thinking back on the kinds of participatorycultures I talked about earlier, participation per se is nothing new. What has put a new wrinkle in thewhole thing is technology, which in many cases allows someone located far away from the physical siteof the archives to make a contribution. And that’s what’s new about the kinds of participatory archivesI’m going to talk about next. The principles are familiar, but technology makes so much more possible.
  • 14K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.I’m going to quickly talk about six different kinds of activities that make something a participatoryarchives. In each case I’ve picked just a few examples to illustrate my point, and I’m afraid I will have torush through them since my time is limited so my apologies if I don’t do them justice. I’ll post links to thesites after this talk so you can go and explore them on your own.[NOTE: For this document I’m not going to try to summarize what each site does, as I did in the talk. Thisis already getting very long and since I’m providing links you can go and look for yourself.]
  • 15K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.There have been a lot of great projects lately that allow users to contribute their knowledge and time tohelp archives by doing work.
  • 16K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.The New York Public Library’s great “What’s on the Menu?” site (http://menus.nypl.org/), which allowsusers to help transcribe historical menus, is highly addictive. It capitalizes on two things many peoplelove: food and history.Old Weather (http://www.oldweather.org/) gives users a chance to transcribe detailed weatherinformation from ship’s logs from the UK National Archives, allowing climate scientists access to awealth of historical data for their research. [Again, there’s a lot more to it than that, but go and check itout for yourself if you’re not familiar with it!]
  • 17K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.Waisda? (http://woordentikkertje.manbijthond.nl/) created a game-like environment to encourageusers to help tag archival video and so make it easier to search.Another one from the New York Public Library: Map Warper (http://maps.nypl.org/warper) “is a toolfor digitally aligning (‘rectifying’) historical maps from the NYPLs collections to match todays precisemaps. Visitors can browse already rectified maps or assist the NYPL by aligning a map.”
  • 18K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.Of course another way to contribute is not by just transcribing or doing other “work,” but bycontributing specialized information.
  • 19K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.“Remember Me” (http://rememberme.ushmm.org/) is a site hosted by the US Holocaust MemorialMuseum that seeks to uncover what happened to the children who survived the Holocaust and weredocumented in photographs by relief agencies.You’re all probably familiar with archives posting copies from their collections on Flickr, but I’m talkinghere about cases in which archives do so with the explicit goal of learning more about them, as is shownhere in a collection from the UK National Archives, “Africa Through a Lens”(http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/collections/72157625827328771/), which seeks tocrowdsource information about images taken in colonial Africa.
  • 20K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.Asking the public to contribute their knowledge about archival collections by creating or editing pages ina wiki have been less successful than some other kinds of participatory archives, but they are certainly avalid example. Here are two of them: “Your Archives” from the UK National Archives (which has sincebeen made inactive, although the site is stillavailable: http://yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php?title=Home_page ) and “OurArchives” from our own National Archives ( http://www.ourarchives.wikispaces.net/).
  • 21K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.A third way for people to contribute to a participatory archives is by adding items to a collection.
  • 22K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.The Denver Public Library’s “Creating Your Community” site( http://www.creatingcommunities.denverlibrary.org/) provides an infrastructure though which self-defined “communities” can upload, document, and share their own collections of resources.The Library of Virginia’s “CW 150 Legacy” project ( http://www.virginiamemory.com/collections/cw150)actively solicited people to bring in their own original documents related to the Civil War to events sothat they could be scanned and virtually added to the Library’s own online collection.
  • 23K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.One reason why I wanted to be deliberately vague in my definition about who or what the “archives”part of participatory archives might be is so that the definition would include collections being createdand maintained outside formal organizational settings.
  • 24K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.One example of this kind of “archive” is Vintage Toronto onFacebook (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Vintage-Toronto/256041347799190), which encouragesanyone to upload their own photos of Toronto from the past as well as adding their own memories tothe images that have already been shared.The Rave Archive http://ravearchive.com/, an effort run privately by volunteers, seeks to “exhibit aspects ofAmerican and Canadian rave culture and history . . . and provide a space where people can share ideas andstories in a forum environment. [They] digitize and make freely accessible high-quality mixtape rips, highresolution scans of zines and flyers, as well as other ephemera, and are constantly looking for the donation (orloan) of new materials to be added to the site.”
  • 25K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.The Archive Team (http://www.archiveteam.org) is another volunteer effort to collect, preserve, andmake accessible documentation of at-risk or “doomed” online communities or publications.
  • 26K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.Another more creative way people participate in archives is by taking the collections that are availableonline and creating new products and site that provide new insight into them. Each of the three tools Iwill talk about in this section was created by someone outside the organization that holds the records.
  • 27K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.Another wonderful project from the New York Public Library, the Stereograminator(http://stereo.nypl.org/) allows site visitors to create and share 3D images from the Library’s collectionof stereograms.The Pittsburgh Mapping and Historical Site Viewer (http://peoplemaps.esri.com/pittviewer/) wascreated by a map and GIS enthusiast who took copies of maps from Historic Pittsburgh and turned theminto geo-rectified layers, highlighting historic sites.
  • 28K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.Invisible Australians (http://www.invisibleaustralians.org/) is another “citizen” effort to bring newmeaning to archival materials by using technology to give a new context. The project usesdocumentation from the National Archives of Australia, originally created as a product of discriminatorylaws, and uses it to bring to life the faces and lives of these “invisible” Australians of the past.
  • 29K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.This last category is one that I wish I could find more examples of. In some ways this would representthe most “participatory” aspect of all, involving people other than archives professionals directly in themanagement or decision making of the archival organization.
  • 30K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.The U.S. National Archives’ Public Interest Declassification Board created the “TransformingClassification” blog (http://blogs.archives.gov/transformingclassification/) and has used it, as well asother forums, to actively solicit public input on how to reform the process of classification anddeclassification of government records.
  • 31K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.Another way, of course, to get people involved directly in the activities of an archives is to get them tohelp fund those activities. Some of the best examples of this I’ve found are on Kickstarter. These two arethe Locus Photo and Ephemera Archive Project(http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2040521099/locus-photo-and-ephemera-archive-project?ref=live) and Project Gado (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1889549817/digitize-the-afro-american-newspaper-using-open-so?ref=live). [Note that the “Adopt a Cylinder Program” sponsored bythe Cylinder Digitization and Preservation Project at the Department of Special Collections, U.C. SantaBarbara is another example, but I didn’t use that one in my talk.]
  • 32K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.Another way to think about participatory archives that’s in a somewhat different vein than my actualdefinition is for archivists themselves to become active participants in communities relevant to thecollections, and so become more active advocates for them. This kind of participation can in turn, leadto greater involvement by the general public as well as scholars with archival collections.
  • 33K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.Ah, but back to my lovingly-crafted definition, that so boldly chose to exclude some categories of onlineactivity. Does it really apply in the strictest sense to all the projects I just talked about? Some, clearlyyes. Some others, perhaps not so clearly. When I was preparing this talk I faced this dilemma. All ofthese projects seemed to me like participatory archives, so if they didn’t meet my definition, then . . .. . . obviously my definition needed some retooling.
  • 34K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.What were the elements that I thought were so important? Those exclusionary ones about what peoplewere contributing and what the results were.But in looking back over the examples I selected for this talk, another element emerged, and it’s clearlythe element I so adamantly wanted to exclude: engagement.
  • 35K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.I went back and thought about what it means to be a participatory culture, and to Lessig’s example ofSousa’s musical culture. When people were gathering together to play music, they wanted to play well,I’m sure, but wasn’t it equally important to practice, to play, and to gather together, rather thanexclusively what the outcome was like?[NOTE: I don’t cite it here, but I must have also had in mind Trevor Owen’s fantastic blog post“Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage: The Objectives Are Upside Down”(http://www.trevorowens.org/2012/03/crowdsourcing-cultural-heritage-the-objectives-are-upside-down/) which he posted in March, about a month before I gave this talk. It’s possible I hadn’t read ituntil afterwards, but in any case it’s great and very relevant.]
  • 36K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.So I need to revise my definition. I haven’t done it yet because lovingly-crafting a definition takes time,but that element of engagement needs to be included, so here in this slide is a place holder for it thatcaptures the thought.[NOTE: This is the refined definition I am now using:An organization, site or collection in which people other than the archives professionalscontribute knowledge or resources resulting in increased appreciation and understanding ofarchival materials and archives, usually in an online environment. ]
  • 37K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.To tie this into a metaphor I’ve used before, if you want to divide the development of the archivalprofession into nice big chunks, you can think about the first phase as being about establishing controlof the material. The second phase, Archives 2.0, was about the profession looking at itself andestablishing new attitudes and approaches to problems. The next phase, which you could call Archives3.0, will I think be focused on making connections between our collections and people. And this is verymuch what participatory archives are all about.But why does this matter, other than being another interesting way to think about things that peopleare already doing?
  • 38K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.It matters, I think, because as we well know, these are perilous times for some cultural organizations.Many archives have been hit with multiple changes to their environment in a comparatively short spaceof time—a proliferation of record formats to preserve, changing expectations from users about howthey want to access information and interact with the archives, and for some, reduced funding andresource levels. I’m not saying that adopting the practices of participatory archives can help mitigate allthose issues, but they can certainly help establish a stronger connection with a user community, and sohopefully nurture future advocates for archival programs.
  • 39K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.But in exchange, that means a loss of control and certainty that some archives and archivists may not becomfortable with. Much depends on the extent to which you want to take it—how participatory do youwant to be? How flexible with your boundaries, your roles, your authority? How risk tolerant is yourorganization?
  • 40K. Theimer, “Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New,” MAC Keynote, April 19, 2012.In order to succeed, the archivist needs to be part of the party, part of the crowd (personally, I thinkwe’re the woman in the front with the blue crown and the lei), and . . .. . . NOT this.And to paraphrase Linus at the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, “That’s what participatoryarchives are all about.”